Hip Teen Bravado & Total Disregard for Plot in Cool as Ice (1991) & The Wild One (1953)

When you first hear that the Marlon Brando classic The Wild One was remade in the early 90s as a movie starring Vanilla Ice it feels as if some kind of blasphemy has been committed. Brando is long regarded to be one of the greatest actors in the history of cinema. Ice is a white boy rapper one-hit-wonder who’s been striving for decades to recapture his initial popularity that peaked with “Ice Ice Baby.” There’s something culturally perverse about conflating those two personalities, as if someone were reimagining Citizen Kane with Justin Bieber in the Orson Welles role. At its heart, though, the Marlon Brando picture was the exact kind of teenybopper media Cool as Ice was attempting to cheaply & effortlessly bring back to the screen, striking while the iron was hot on Vanilla Ice’s flash in the pan popularity. The dirty secret, too, is that although Brando is clearly the superior craftsman of the pair, Cool as Ice may very well be the better film. It’s at least debatable.

The Wild One is a slightly more prestigious version of the exploitation-minded “road to ruin” pictures, where a virtuous teenage girl is tempted down a dangerous path by the promise of a more exciting, sinful life. Marlon Brando embodies that sinful excitement. He’s cool; he’s beautiful; he’s dressed like a Discipline Daddy. For a movie with essentially no plot outside an overall sense of stasis, it’s insane how much of a cultural icon Brando’s puppy-eyed badboy presence was able to make out of The Wild One. The film’s rival motorcycle gangs, The Beetles & The Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, have inspired the names of world-famous rock ‘n roll bands. Brando’s sideburns & pointless rebellious bravado inspired much of Elvis’s soon-to-come gimmick. The movie itself is also said to have inspired the birth of the outlaw biker exploitation film genre, which eventually hit its peak with the New Hollywood milestone Easy Rider. All that happens in the movie is that Brando’s motorcycle gang is stranded in a small town along with their most bitter rivals. While waiting for one member to recover from an injury, Brando flirts with a local waitress and the violence between the gangs escalates from hooliganism to someone actually getting critically hurt when the townspeople (somewhat rightfully) attempt to get them in trouble for raising hell. At the end, they leave and move onto the next town. The Wild One is not at all focused on telling a story. It’s a movie that gets by entirely on a youthful sense of style, which made it the perfect candidate to be adapted for a Vanilla Ice vehicle.

Cool as Ice struggles to be that relaxed about plotting, but it’s not that far behind. The movie starts with the exact standard motorcycle gang invades a small town dynamic of The Wild One (even keeping the central love interests’ names as Kathy and Johnny), just with a much smaller cast. In the third act, though, the movie feels a need to create a kidnapping crisis involving shady adults with hidden past identities to add more structure to its gleefully loose acts of teenage rebellion & romance. These are two films about style, purely so. In The Wild One, a gang of teenage, leather-clad bikers drink mountains of beers, hop around on pogo sticks, randomly pick fist fights, and listen to jazzy beatnik tunes on a jukebox. A lot of what makes Cool as Ice fun to watch is its nonstop barrage of similarly hip 90s fashion, which is a much more brightly colored version of biker chic. For instance, Vanilla Ice also dons a leather jacket in the film, but instead of it being monogramed “Johnny​” like Brando’s, it reads phrases like “SEX,” “LUST,” and “YEP, YEP” in giant, tacky block letters on every possible surface. Cool as Ice minimizes the drunken brawling of The Wild One (a reckless energy that got the Brando film saddled with an X-rating in the UK), but finds its own sense of non-kid friendly edge in its blatant, omnipresent sexuality. You’d also think that the hip-hop flavor of Cool as Ice would feel oddly out of place with the Brando original, but that film is loaded with moments of tough guy bikers “scatting jive” over a jazzy backbeat, which is more or less in the same spirit. Forgetting the dissonance in Vanilla Ice & Marlon Brando’s reputations as real life personalities for a minute, the way Cool as Ice adapts The Wild One to a 90s Attitude™ isn’t blasphemous at all. The two films are oddly in sync.

A young Marlon Brando is obviously a better candidate for Commander of Eternal Cool than a young Vanilla Ice and, as the superior actor, he always had a better chance of making his role as Johnny an iconic one. Even on a dialogue level, his flippant response to the question, “What are you rebelling against?” “What have you got?” is much more likely to go down in history than Ice’s “Drop that zero and get with the hero.” The downright gorgeous Janusz Kazinski cinematograpy and Pee-wee’s Playhouse style set design of Cool as Ice elevates the film above any ground lost by its star’s unconvincing Brando bravado, though. These are two near-plotless films about outlandish young weirdos chaotically laughing in the face of every adult they encounter, wearing ridiculous (and ridiculously dated) fashion, and searching for moments of fleeting romance before heading to the next town. The Wild One has a better lead performance and Cool as Ice has the better visual palette. Neither arise too high above the status of teen culture time capsules, but what’s surprising is how well a Vanilla Ice vehicle holds its own against what’s considered to be one of Marlon Brando’s most iconic leading man roles. If the debate of which film were better could be settled by a dance-off I have no doubt Vanilla Ice would win with ease, but it’s insane that the two films’ quality levels were close enough for that to even be a question.

For more on June’s Movie of the Month, the Vanilla Ice vehicle Cool as Ice, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and this episode of the We Love to Watch podcast that covers similar themes of artful commercialism.

-Brandon Ledet

The Unknown Terror (1957)

EPSON MFP image

three star

Common wisdom tends to posit Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now as an art film upheaval of Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness, but I think there’s something undeniably pulpy in the film’s final act that compromises that reading. Marlon Brando’s infamous performance as Colonel Kurtz is an intensely weird vision of madness that elevates the material in a last minute left turn, but the more I mull over the character the more he plays like a true archetype of a mad villain than a modern subversion of that trope. This rings especially true after watching the drive-in horror cheapie The Unknown Terror. The villain of The Unknown Terror is a mad scientist type who has won over the hearts of a remote Mexican community by “conquering the God of Death” with First World medicines, an act of “charity” that has made him something of an unchecked deity among the locals. Much like Kurtz, the wicked Dr. Ramsey loses control of his hubris and lets the newfound power go straight to his head. He also loses his sanity and becomes enraptured with the natural world, dangerously so. The idea that Dr. Ramsey would be modeled after Kurtz isn’t too much out of the ordinary, given the influential nature of Conrad’s novel, but the way his character is played for cheap drive-in thrills in The Unknown Terror points to a pulp aspect of Brando’s odd mode of scenery chewing in Apocalypse Now, an energy he would later repeat in The Island of Dr. Moreau.

Even outside of its context under the umbrella of Heart of Darkness adaptations/bastardizations, The Unknown Terror is still an entertaining slice of schlocky sci-fi horror. In a way it plays like the major studio productions in the decades before its time that promised to have something for everyone: music!, adventure!, romance!, scares!. Yet, it still avoids feeling entirely like cookie cutter tedium, since each of these individual elements are executed surprisingly effectively. The musical performances are badass calypso tunes about a mysterious Cave of the Dead that haunts local superstition, featuring menacing lyrics about how Man has to “suffer to be born again.” The adventure is an Indiana Jones-style spelunking effort meant to retrieve a man lost to the Cueva Muertes, a cave believed to be a physical manifestation of Purgatory, where you can hear the screams of the damned. The romance is a love triangle disturbed by a crippling accident in the past & a seething air of jealousy that bubbles to the surface in the rescue mission attempts to recover the missing explorer in the Cueva Muertes. The scares are, of course, what they find in the cave and what has been driving the once reputable Dr. Ramsey to the point of madness. What Ramsey has been hiding from the villagers is that the screams coming from the Cueva Muertes are not at all the screams of the dead, but rather the screams of the very much alive survivors of his cruel science experiments on unsuspecting human subjects.

The same way the evil scientist of The Flesh Eaters cultivates & weaponizes a pre-existing, natural virus, Dr. Ramsey orchestrates the horrors of The Unknown Terror by cultivating & weaponizing a killer fungus. The Cueva Muertes is covered in a very peculiar fungus that spreads through “binary fusion,” latching onto parasitic hosts, namely humans, and transforming them into hideous fungus monsters.  The visual effects of this cave fungus are more or less on par with what you’d expect from this era of filmmaking. The “monsters” are men in Halloween costume getups. The “fungus” covered set looks like a combination of a Buck Rogers alien terrain & a nightclub foam party with a science fair volcano theme. What makes The Unknown Terror at all memorable is the strength of its ideas within its cookie cutter genre film shape, dragging in the specificity of its Of Human Bondage disability shame & the Heart of Darkness vibes of its mad scientist villain to elevate the auto-pilot material, when it didn’t need to try nearly as hard to fulfill its destiny as double bill drive-in fodder. I would never suggest pairing any film with Apocalypse Now, since Coppola’s supposed masterpiece is already an overlong three hour affair, but I do think The Unknown Terror shines some unexpected light on how that film mixes a little genre film cliché into its overreaching art film ambition, especially when it comes to the character of Kurtz. The Unknown Terror is entertaining enough even without that connection to a beloved 1970s classic, but the way it resembles the standard-issue shape of so many of its contemporaries means it wasn’t likely to be remembered otherwise.

-Brandon Ledet

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 3: Apocalypse Now (1979)

EPSON MFP image

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where Apocalypse Now (1979) is referenced in Life Itself: In the first edition hardback, Apocalypse Now is referenced on page 2. Roger mentions that when “The Ride of the Valkyres”plays during a helicopter attack in the film, he got a rare, tingling sensation of “reality realigning itself,” the same feeling he had when he proposed marriage to Chaz & the day his father announced he was dying of cancer. In the film version of Life Itself, Ebert is shown arguing the merits of Apocalypse Now to a nonplussed Gene Siskel on two separate occasions. He seemed especially aggravated that Siskel enjoyed Full Metal Jacket more than Apocalypse Now.

What Ebert had to say in his reviews: “Years and years from now, when Coppola’s budget and his problems have long been forgotten, ‘Apocalypse’ will still stand, I think, as a grand and grave and insanely inspired gesture of filmmaking — of moments that are operatic in their style and scope, and of other moments so silent we can almost hear the director thinking to himself.” – From his 1979 review for the Chicago Sun Times

“Other important films such as ‘Platoon,’ ‘The Deer Hunter,’ ‘Full Metal Jacket’ and ‘Casualties of War’ take their own approaches to Vietnam. Once at the Hawaii Film Festival I saw five North Vietnamese films about the war. (They never mentioned ‘America,’ only ‘the enemy,’ and one director told me, ‘It is all the same–we have been invaded by China, France, the U.S. . . .’) But ‘Apocalypse Now’ is the best Vietnam film, one of the greatest of all films, because it pushes beyond the others, into the dark places of the soul. It is not about war so much as about how war reveals truths we would be happy never to discover.” -From his 1999 review for his “Great Movies” series

EPSON MFP image

It’s near impossible to tell whether or not I’ve seen Apocalypse Now before. Surely, there are plenty of scenes in the film that are vivid to me out of context, but I might’ve picked those up incidentally by catching them on a Greatest Movies of All Time clip show or playing on television while channel surfing. The reason I’m unsure if I’ve ever watched Apocalypse Now in its entirety before is that I feel like I’d more clearly remember a viewing experience as weighty as the film’s 3+hour runtime. I hate to be the kind of cinematic philistine who knocks a slow-paced “classic” for testing my patience, but Apocalypse Now is too damn long. There is a wealth of individual scenes in the film that carry a forceful impact in isolation, but when they’re broken up by a slow trudge upriver & Batman-gritty narration about “the horror, the horror” of war, Apocalypse Now reveals itself to be a huge commitment of time & effort that might not deliver everything it promises. As a literary adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness I think the film is a fresh, interesting take that reveals new truths about its source material by shifting its setting & narrative detail, but the truth is I found Heart of Darkness to be just as much of a chore as consuming Apocalypse Now in one sitting. This is a great adaptation of a novel I don’t care for & a runtime that spiraled out of control even before its extended “Redux” treatment. There’s no denying that the film is packing several powerful punches, though, and it’s all too easy to see how someone could fall in love with the film as a massive whole.

A lot of Apocalypse Now‘s imagery & one-liners are perhaps a little too over-familiar after years of reverent repetition: the ceiling fan blades fading into helicopter sounds, Martin Sheen’s mud-painted face emerging form the bog, the utterance of “I love the smell of napalm in the morning”, etc. However, it’s clear as day with two stretches of the film still play freshest in 2016. I feel like I’ve seen a lot of the film’s war-is-Hell grittiness covered thoroughly in other works. the alcohol-fueled PTSD, overbearing narration, and off-hand soldier quips like, “You’re in the asshole of the world, Captain” all feel like old hat at this point, whether or not they were groundbreaking representation in 1979. What does feel important & unique still is the film’s approach to representing madness among soldiers. Robert Duvall’s colonel might be remembered most for what he likes to smell in the morning, but his emotionally detached obsession with surfing under fire is what stands out most in modern viewings. While dodging bombs & bullets from the Viet Cong, Duvall orders his terrified young men to surf the incoming tide as if they were kicking back beers on a California beach instead of fearing for their lives under fire in Vietnam. It’s a perfect representation of how the war left many men emotionally detached & downright deranged.

Of course, Duvall’s colonel is just a small taste of wartime madness before the main feast: Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz. It takes a three hour effort for Martin Sheen’s broken shell of a captain to make it upriver to meet Kurtz & decide whether or not to complete his mission of assassinating the defected madman. A lot of anticipation is built by the time Martin Sheen & Marlon Brando share their infamous face to face in the film’s third act and it’s amazing just how much Brando delivers under that pressure. His intensely weird performance as Kurtz is a tangible, skin-crawling kind of madness that feels inseparable from Brando as an actor, especially in light of the recent documentary Listen to Me Marlon that hits a lot of the same deranged, hypnotic notes. A lot of audiences in 1979 believed that, like Kurtz, Brando “had gone totally insane & that [his] methods were unsound.” However, if his performance were indeed a work of madness, it’s undeniably of the mad genius variety.

As Ebert points out in this review, any movie is lucky to have one or two great scenes & Apocalypse Now has many. The film gets on a particular roll in its final sequence once Kurtz’s mania graces the screen and the imagery & music combine to create a sort of wartime tone poem that just screams “art house darling” in every frame. There was a lot made of the troubled, over-budget production that plagued Apocalypse Now at the time of its release & there was indeed enough snafus during filming to support a feature length documentary, Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse. The prevailing wisdom of the time is that director Francis Ford Coppola, was in the middle of a winning streak that included titles like The Godfather & The Outsiders might’ve bitten off more than he could chew with Apocalypse Now & the resulting film was somewhat of an untethered mess that couldn’t quite match its ambition with a unifying sense of discipline. Discerning critics like Ebert, who heralded the film like a masterpiece, had a completely different take, lauding the film as an impeccably visualized descent into madness, an entirely new & powerful way of representing war’s savage effect on the fragile human mind.

I think the truth probably lies somewhere between these two takes. The third, Kurtz-focused hour of the film really does feel like it taps into a troubled soldier’s plight in a way that few film scan claim to do, with much of the credit for that accomplishment resting firmly on Marlon Brando’s beyond mad shoulders & Coppola’s eye for haunting visuals. However, the film’s sprawling runtime & three separate versions (including the “Redux” & an infamous bootleg of a workprint) point to a director who may have flew a little too close to the sun to fully realize his vision. I respect Apocalypse Now‘s ambition & find its messy approach to Vietnam War cinema to be a lot more satisfying than more cookie-cutter examples of the genre, but I also find the idea of the film being a masterpiece to be a somewhat flimsy argument. It really does have more truly great scenes than most movies could dream to bring to the screen, but the film itself never feels like more than the sum of its parts. Much like Sheen’s protagonist, Apocalypse Now goes on a dangerous, mind-threatening journey upriver to seek great existential truths, only to discover it’s not sure what to do once it reaches its destination.

EPSON MFP image

Roger’s Rating: (4/4, 100%)

fourstar

Brandon’s Rating: (3.5/5, 70%)

threehalfstar

-Brandon Ledet

Listen to Me Marlon (2015)

EPSON MFP image

fourstar

Documentaries aren’t a medium that necessarily require constant innovation to remain relevant, but it’s still exciting when they reach for unexplored methods of information delivery. 2013 saw the unskeptical oral history of The Shining‘s conspiracy theorists in Room 237. 2014 allowed the perpetrators of a horrific genocide to tell their own story through a cinematic lens in The Act of Killing. It’s arguable that 2015’s biggest contribution to the documentary as a medium might have been Listen to Me Marlon. As a biography-in-motion type of doc, its approach to storytelling is fascinating on both a visual & an aural plane. With a wealth of lengthy rants culled from hundreds of hours of home audio recordings from infamous actor Marlon Brando’s recollections & attempts at self-hypnosis, Listen to Me Marlon matches the disconnected nature of its subject’s self-interviews with an equally blurry montage of his image both alive & undead. Yes, Brando appears posthumously in the film as a digitized ghost à la Robyn Wright in the criminally under-appreciated The Congress. It’s an eerie effect, but an entirely appropriate one give the oddness of its subject.

Marlon Brando was inarguably a fascinating man. He may even have been, for a time, America’s greatest actor. A straight-forward documentary about him would have easily been worthwhile. Instead of adopting a traditional approach, though, Listen to Me Marlon lulls its audience into a hypnotic state through the actor’s infamous mumble. As Marlon reminisces on the production of The Godfather, Last Tango in Paris, On The Waterfront, The Wild One, etc., you get the distinct feeling that you’re listening to & watching a ghost. In his life, Brando had already transformed from an impossibly beautiful young specimen of a man into an angry beast of an old crank. Listen to Me Marlon stages another transformation for the actor into a third, ethereal, intangible form. It’s a compelling effect, although a thoroughly subdued one.

People looking for a recap of a storied existence shouldn’t be too disappointed by what’s delivered here. Brando was a bit of a womanizer (helpfully explaining that “A lot of your decisions are made by your penis & not your brain”) and the film makes a big to-do about the parade of beauties that passed through his arms. He also discusses the very nature of his craft, recounting how he became an actor by accident, how cinema is different from stage acting because “your face becomes the stage” in close-ups, how his drama instructor Stella Adler essentially invented method acting & modern cinema and, of course, his ever-growing hatred for the parasitic nature of celebrity culture & tabloidism. Speaking of tabloids, Brando’s personal life & familial affairs also have a juicy quality to them (in the fact that they’re horrifically tragic & nobody’s business, really), as did his strong political affiliations – which included unlikely partnerships with The Black Panthers & radical Native American Civil Rights organizations.

Like I said, though, Listen to Me Marlon is anything but straight-forward, so anyone looking for that kind of recap is a lot more likely to be satisfied by a read-through of Brando’s Wikipedia page. For all of his discussion of craft in the film, his self-reflection still tends to get philosophical & abstract. He explains that acting is “lying for a living” & ponders why people would spend hard earned cash to sit in the dark & stare at a screen. His explanations delve into the idea that people want to be alone with their fantasies & their struggle with The Nightmare of the Want of Things. Brando also has a lot of abstract, frustrated things to say about the value (or lack thereof) in cinema & the exploitative nature of celebrity culture. The film has a great wealth of interview footage, photographs, and home audio to back up his abstract ponderings, but the ponderings themselves are less of a straight line & more of a swirly mess. I’ve never seen a documentary adapt dream logic or the shape of memories as closely as Listen to Me Marlon does & that aspect of its narrative is almost just as interesting as the story of Brando’s life itself, which is really saying something.

-Brandon Ledet

Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau (2015)

EPSON MFP image

threehalfstar

I don’t really remember much about John Frankenheimer’s 1996 Island of Dr. Moreau. My parents rented it the summer it came to VHS, and, presumably ignorant of how mature it was, allowed me to watch it with them (of course, my father was and is the kind of person who really only objected to profanity and sex, while violence was ignored most of the time; it’s telling that they allowed me to watch this movie, but Miss Congeniality was banned in our house years later due to Sandra Bullock’s “foul” mouth). Most of what I remember is that Fairuza Balk, who I knew from Return to Oz, was in it, as was some hideous wheezing monster named Marlon Brando, whom my mother tried unsuccessfully to convince me was once a handsome movie star. This was a movie that had hyena monsters and a horribly graphic scene of a beast person giving birth, but I don’t remember those elements at all while Brando’s white-painted face haunted me for years.

But we’re not here to talk about that movie; we’re here to talk about what that movie could have been, or, more accurately, about the documentary about the movie that could have been, had original director Richard Stanley not been fired from the project, and all the myriad ways that fate conspired to destroy his vision. In Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau, director David Gregory delves into Stanley’s fascination with H.G. Wells’s novel from early childhood and his lifelong pursuit of giving the book a film adaptation that lived up to the story’s potential. Following the successes of his cyberpunk post-apocalypse horror flick Hardware and his sophomore follow up Dust Devil, Stanley found himself in talks with New Line about directing a film for them. Due to his lifelong love of Dr. Moreau, he successfully pitched the adaptation; it was all downhill from there.

Lost Soul covers a lot of ground, with interviews from sources as varied as Balk, Stanley, New Line founder and president Robert Shaye, Moreau animal behavioral consultant Peter Elliott, and actors Marco Hofschneider, Temuera Morrison, Neil Young (no, not that one), Fiona Mahl, and Rob Morrow (who took over for Val Kilmer in the Prendick role when Kilmer’s insistence on fewer shooting days meant that Kilmer was shifted into the role of Montgomery, initially filled by James Woods; Morrow would also eventually bow out and be replaced by David Thewlis). Beginning with Stanley’s upbringing as the child of a single mother who was fascinated by occultism both academically and personally and following through to Stanley’s current career (spoiler alert: it’s not pretty), the documentary details how Stanley, a young indie director whose pet project suddenly became a multi-million dollar picture when Brando expressed interest in the title role, was eventually fired from the production when he found himself in over his head and beset by problems. The literal hurricanes that destroyed many sets were nothing compared to the setback caused by Brando’s daughter’s suicide during pre-production, making it impossible to film significant portions of the film for several weeks. Worse still were the mind games that Kilmer used to undermine and belittle Stanley; the actor was going through a nasty divorce at the time, but that doesn’t begin to cover a fraction of the horror stories of intimidation tactics and threats the cast and crew recall from their time working on the film.

Stanley was ultimately fired as the result of many things that were outside of his control, and this story is a tragic one. It’s not the most engaging documentary I’ve seen, and lacks the warmth and nostalgia of, say, Best Worst Movie, which also tackled the making of a notoriously bad feature. Still, it’s a fascinating look behind the curtain of one of the biggest box office and critical flops of the 1990s, and it serves as a reminder of how an artist can be destroyed by concerns, commercial or otherwise, that are outside of his or her hands. Stanley was propelled far beyond what he was suited and prepared for too early in his career and his talent and drive weren’t enough to save him or Dr. Moreau.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond